Chiefs' Travis Kelce evolves into an elite tight end

THE HOUSE ON West Nixon Street in Cincinnati was quite nice before the football players moved in, with five bedrooms, 2½ baths and a fresh coat of paint. For a college kid, it was practically a palace. But testosterone and Natty Lights are a dangerous mix, and soon the walls were pocked with holes, the tables were covered in takeout boxes and the air carried the funk of a locker room.

This was Travis Kelce's last hope: a crowded house and a year of penance. He had no money, no scholarship and no prospects. He'd just been kicked off the football team at the University of Cincinnati for smoking marijuana. Before this, everything in his first 20 years always seemed to come easy. People at Cincinnati say Kelce was so talented that he probably could have played on the football, basketball and baseball teams. He could throw a 94 mph fastball barely trying. But now Kelce had nothing.

His big brother, Jason, a center for the Bearcats, offered him a bed in the football house on Nixon Street, but there was a catch: They'd have to share a bedroom, and Travis would have to turn things around before all the gifts he had went to waste.

It was quite a collection of characters in that house -- Derek Wolfe, future defensive end for the Denver Broncos; Jason Kelce, now a center for the Philadelphia Eagles; and Zach Collaros, now a quarterback in the CFL.

While they prepared for the 2010 season, Travis took a telemarketing job and sat in a tiny cubicle doing surveys on Obamacare. People would yell at him about the government stealing their money, and Kelce made $8 an hour and felt depressed.

"All I had been doing is playing outside, playing sports my entire life," Kelce says. "I had never sat down and tried to earn a living like that. That's not to hit on anybody's 9-to-5; that's just not for me.

"The light at the end of the tunnel was that if I do what I'm supposed to do instead of being a knucklehead, I can have a way better life than this."

TRAVIS KELCE IS on his cellphone after practice on Monday afternoon when he's asked what he'd change about the NFL, and the tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs is stumped. Kelce doesn't have many complaints. He's having the time of his life.

That come-to-Jesus moment at Cincinnati forced Kelce to change his work ethic and shaped his focus, and now Kelce has evolved into an elite tight end. But it also taught Kelce to stop and enjoy everything that comes his way.

He was virtually unstoppable in the final seven games of the season, catching 43 passes for 659 yards. He had four straight 100-yard games, one shy of an NFL record.

In that same time frame, Kelce has:

  • Tossed a towel at a referee, who then ejected him.

  • Mocked Oakland Raiders punter Marquette King for his horse-riding celebration because he figured punters aren't supposed to celebrate.

  • Watched the end of his reality dating show in which 50 women vied for his affections.

  • Parted ways with the winner of that reality show.

  • Questioned the Chiefs' playcalling after a December loss to Tennessee, according to the Kansas City Star.

  • Danced after numerous big plays.

"At the end of the day," Kelce says, "I feel like if you're not having fun with what you do, there's really not much of a point to be doing it."

Kelce's 6-foot-5, 260-pound size, along with his speed, athleticism and supersized personality, have drawn comparisons to New England's Rob Gronkowski. But Kelce is sort of the GQ version of Gronk, a polished 27-year-old who is parts hipster and lumberjack. Kelce went to an art show during the bye week. He is well-aware of his brand and the constraints of building it in a small-market town where one of the first things you see on the drive from the airport is a building adorned with a statue of a bull.

When Kelce gets compared to Gronk, it's hard to tell whether he's humbled or a little weary of it. Maybe it's both. He calls Gronkowski "one hell of a player." But Kelce wants to chart his own identity.

The reality show was a way to get his name out there, and that's one of the reasons he did it, much to the chagrin of his family and most likely the Chiefs front office.

"I think it's all bulls---," Kelce's dad, Ed, says in a phone call from their hometown of Cleveland. "Excuse my French. I understand why he did it. It was an opportunity to go out there, and if nothing else, show producers he can take direction and do what he's told. I'll leave it at that. I didn't like 'The Apprentice,' I don't like 'The Bachelor,' and I sure as hell did not like 'Catching Kelce.' But nobody is asking my opinion of that."

Kelce says he and show winner Maya Benberry broke up in early December. He insists there will not be a Season 2 of "Catching Kelce," but here's the deal: Kelce is a showman, he's Hollywood in the heartland, and something else is bound to come along. He says he wants his next TV venture to be on "The Price Is Right," because the Plinko game, according to Kelce, is "a modern roulette." It's hard to tell whether he's serious.

"I feel like my brand goes as I play football," Kelce says. "If I turn into the greatest football player that I can be, I feel that my brand, how people look at me, is all going to be positive."

AT FIRST GLANCE, it's hard to tell that Jason and Travis Kelce are brothers. Jason does not dance, and he wouldn't be caught dead on a television show that ran on E! He's an offensive lineman, a guy who works behind the scenes and thinks before he speaks or acts. Travis has a stylish haircut and a perfectly trimmed beard; Jason's hair oftentimes looks as if it came off an old mop.

When they were kids, Ed says, Travis used to place his trophies neatly on a dresser. Jason's were shoved somewhere in a box or a closet.

"Really, the thing that always kept him back, I think," Jason says, "was that he was so much better physically than everybody else that he had never gone through a lot of adversity. He never had to struggle that much."

There is a story about the first time Travis beat Jason in basketball, which also marked their last fistfight. Travis was a freshman in high school. Jason, furious he lost, got into a scuffle with his brother in the middle of the kitchen. Travis, at least for a moment, got the better of his brother, picking him up and throwing him on his back. Jason says an oven was knocked over during the carnage, and, finally, Ed Kelce tried to intervene. But their dad got caught in the middle, and the only thing that stopped it was Ed screaming his ribs were broken. (His ribs weren't really broken.)

So now there was Travis years later, devastated that football might be over, and Jason there to pick him up off the floor. Butch Jones, who was Cincinnati's coach at the time, eventually let Travis play on the scout team in the fall of 2010, without a scholarship.

It wasn't necessarily the best news for the Bearcats' defense. Alex Hoffman, one of Kelce's old teammates, called 2010 the redemption year for Kelce. Nearly every day, Kelce was getting into a fight with a defensive lineman or a linebacker. He would knock the first-stringers on their backs.

He didn't care who he was destroying. He wanted to embarrass anyone he was blocking. His hard work earned him his scholarship in 2011, when Jason went off to the NFL. Jason downplays his role in helping his brother and says it wasn't a big deal.

"Of course he's going to say that," Travis says. "He's helped me out more so by just being a big brother and an influence. I've always looked up to him and kind of followed in his footsteps whether he's known it or not. Jason's been more of an example type of influence than a guy who's going to kind of grab me by the back of my neck and tell me to go this way. And that's helped mold me into who I am today."

THE CHIEFS PLAYED the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in late November, and before the game, Bucs quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian found Kelce on the field. Bajakian works with Jameis Winston, and he sees similarities between Winston and Kelce: the talent, the emotion and the tendency to let competitiveness get the best of them.

Bajakian coached Kelce at Cincinnati and got on him when Kelce played past the whistles. But really, Bajakian wouldn't be all that mad. He loved the way Kelce played.

The coach followed Jones to Tennessee in 2013, and as Bajakian gathered his new players in a meeting room, he asked for a show of hands of those who thought they worked hard. Dozens of hands went up, and then Bajakian popped in a video. It was a highlight video of Kelce.

If you think you play hard, Bajakian told them, look at this guy. The kid the coaches didn't want was now the subject of high praise.

"He definitely had a personality that everyone was attracted to," Bajakian says. "He got along with everybody. I didn't matter who it was, from the freshman placekicker to the senior defensive lineman. He kind of transcended those positional cliques.

"He's a likeable guy. He doesn't conform to the NFL. He's having fun."

PERHAPS THE BEST example of Kelce's importance to the Chiefs came on Christmas night, in a game against the Denver Broncos. Kelce caught a career-high 11 passes for 160 yards -- he was targeted 12 times -- but his most impressive plays did not involve stats. He delivered two blocks that produced two touchdowns. On the first one, quarterback Alex Smith pointed to the tight end and wrapped him in a hug in the end zone. On the second, which sprung Tyreek Hill for a 70-yard score, Kelce flattened Broncos safety Darian Stewart.

"Those things rub off," Smith told the Chiefs' website, "those effort plays and guys giving it up. He's special. I do think he's ascending and getting better, but for him to do that I think sets a great example for the whole team."

Pro Football Focus ranked Kelce the No. 1 tight end in 2016 (Gronkowski is out for the season with a back injury). Kelce had a league-leading 1,125 receiving yards, with 58 percent of them coming, according to the website, after the catch.

"At the end of the day, I feel like if you're not having fun with what you do, there's really not much of a point to be doing it." Travis Kelce

Kelce plays on the edge, but so do the Chiefs. In their first game of the season, they fell behind by 21 points in the third quarter, then staged the biggest comeback in franchise history against San Diego. The Chiefs won in overtime at Denver and on after returning a "pick-2" in Atlanta, with Eric Berry intercepting a pass on a two-point conversion attempt and returning it to the end zone for a 29-28 victory.

The team is made up of a diverse group of personalities, from the stoic Smith to the inspirational Berry, who came back from a cancer diagnosis, to Kelce. Somehow, it all works in coach Andy Reid's locker room. Ed Kelce says his son needed a coach who will "put up with his s---."

But really, Kelce just needed someone who'd let him be himself.

"We're going to give you a map on what we want done," Reid says of his approach toward players' individuality. "But you've got to allow yourself to be yourself within the restrictions of the offense and the defense and special teams. I don't want to curb that. I want you to play with emotion. It's an emotional game.

"Listen, sometimes young guys -- they kind of have to learn where to shut it off. But if you have a good locker room, they figure it out."

Kelce, in some ways, is still learning. A week after his 160-yard game on Dec. 25 against the Broncos, the best game of his career, he was benched for the start of the season finale against the Chargers. His absence caused a lot of speculation in Kansas City, especially because it happened before New Year's Eve and Kelce has been known to enjoy the nightlife nearly as hard as he takes out tacklers. But neither Reid nor Kelce would say why he was punished.

Kelce offered only that "It was 1,000 percent my fault that I was not playing. I wish I could've played and showed him my remorse and showed him I'm all about the team."

WHEN KELCE WAS 5 years old, his dad took him to a World Series game. The seats were so far up that they didn't get the best view. But it's one of Kelce's favorite childhood memories. Flash-forward to October 2016, when the Cleveland Indians were back in the World Series and Kelce treated his dad to a game. He loved that he could finally turn the tables, that he had the money to do so.

Ed Kelce will be there on Sunday when the Chiefs host Pittsburgh, but he doesn't go to many away games anymore. He can't justify paying $600 for a skybox seat when he can watch it on TV.

When the Chiefs played New England in the divisional round of the playoffs last year, it was quite a scene. Here was this 26-year-old tight end, by no means a household name, giving crap to Tom Brady. The quarterback was jacked up in pregame, punching his fist in the air and bobbing his head to the crowd near the spot in which the Chiefs were warming up. Kelce sidled up behind the future Hall of Famer and imitated his movements from a few yards away.

"He's down by the goal line hootin' and hollerin'," Kelce says, "and we're all as a group -- me, the wideouts and some of the defensive backs -- were just standing over there, and he just starts hollerin'. As a guy from where I come from, I'm going to holler back if you start yapping away. You talk, you're going to hear me talk.

"He's a great player. I'm not taking anything away from that. I'm not doing it because I don't respect him. I'm doing it because I feel like there's a lack of respect from him."

Kelce will be fearless on Sunday, having the time of his life. He will be outside, running and playing football, nowhere near a cubicle, and everyone will be watching. It's exactly where he's supposed to be.